Amanda Miller was just 17 when her father died of lung cancer.
“We both struggled with mental health issues,” says Miller, now a 36-year-old actor, writer and Jewish educator. “I saw his self-destructive behaviors — smoking, food issues — and thought, ‘I don’t want this to be my path.’”
Miller’s one-woman, interactive show “The Jew in the Ashram” tells the story of her journey to a spiritual community in India and her path back to Judaism. She will perform the play as part of the Charm City Fringe Festival, which will be held Oct. 17-20 at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center Banquet Hall, 401 N. Howard St.
Soon after losing her father, Miller, a San Diego native who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., studied acting at New York University. While searching for ways to cope with anxiety, depression and eating disorders, she discovered the healing practices of yoga and massage.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Miller went on to earn a master’s degree in creative non-fiction at The New School in New York.
While there, she started her memoir and master’s project, “One Breath, Then Another” (Lucid River Press). Meanwhile, yoga and massage continued to be critical components of Miller’s self-care regimen.
“I was going to yoga six days a week and found it really helpful to my mental health and spirit,” says Miller. “I thought, ‘I need to go to India. It’s where yoga is from.’”
Miller eventually found herself on an ashram outside of the ancient Indian holy city of Nashik, where she enrolled in a yoga teaching training program.
“A lot of stuff came up,” she says. “There was deep reflection on mortality, and as I’m chanting and studying Sanskrit, I’m having all these reflections on my Jewish upbringing. I went to Camp Ramah growing up and I thought a lot about camp — the spiritual community, the ritual stuff, the intimate friendships. That was where Judaism was most meaningful to me. There was a parallel between being at the ashram and [being at] camp.”
Miller also thought a lot about the raw power of prayer. “I have a scene in the show — it’s the night before the teacher training ends — and I’m singing Havdalah on a hill at the ashram,” she says.
After returning from India, Miller completed and published “One Breath and Another” and created an “interactive yoga show” based on the memoir. The show touched on Miller’s Jewish roots, but Judaism wasn’t its central theme.
In 2017, while running a Shabbaton for middle school students in Chicago, Miller says she was inspired to “make the show more Jewish.” She incorporated reflections about her adolescence and new material about her father’s Jewish history, especially about his biological mother, a Holocaust survivor whom she called Esther. The modified show became “The Jew in the Ashram.”
“My father was adopted by a rabbi,” says Miller. “[His mother] was from Poland. She and her sister were the only ones in their family to survive. They were in multiple [Nazi death] camps, and she really should have died.”
Instead, Miller’s paternal grandmother ended up in Sweden, where she reconnected with a man she knew from childhood. “They were going to get married, but decided not to go to America as a married couple,” says Miller. “She and her sister went to New York to stay with a cousin [and await the future husband’s arrival]. She found out she was pregnant and ended up living in a home for unwed mothers and had to give the baby up for adoption. … Maybe [Miller’s father’s] mental health problems stemmed from that intergenerational trauma? It’s something I’m exploring in the show.”
While tackling serious themes, “The Jew in the Ashram” is also funny and universal, says Miller. “People don’t have to be Jewish to understand the show,” she says. “It has universal themes having to do with identity and cultural exchange. Everyone has things with their family. … It could be anyone’s experience.”
While the play is interactive — including offering some yogic practices such as breath work, chanting and basic movements— one need not have any experience with yoga to participate, Miller says.
“It’s a really unique theatrical experience,” she says. “Hopefully, people who come will have an opportunity to do some of their own reflection. I’m hoping to create a community feeling and a space where people can think about things that matter to them.”
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